Breastfeeding and Intimacy

By Naomi Stadlen

London, England UK

From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 3, May-June 2007, pp. 100-10

Breastfeeding facilitates an intimate relationship between mother and baby. "Intimate" comes from the Latin "intimus," which means "innermost." From inside the mother's body comes a precious food that her child takes into his own body. For this to happen, the two of them usually have to be close to one another, probably touching. (There seem to be many ways of breastfeeding, however. In one middle-eastern culture, the mother leans over a rocking cradle to breastfeed, which she does without touching her baby. The cradle has a wooden bar on which she can rest her weight.) Mother and baby usually face one another, so the mother's eyes look down at her baby's face as he feeds, while he can gaze back at her when he pauses or comes off the breast.

Their relationship is not static, but constantly changing. Perhaps, for a while, both are very aware of one another. But, a little later, the baby may seem to be studying a new shape or color with his full attention. Meanwhile his mother may be reviewing a past event or planning a future one. Almost, her attention has left her baby.

The two may be closely connected, yet each remains separate. The mother, holding her baby, can see that he depends on her for his physical well-being. Yet in some respects, he seems independent. Small though he is, he looks as though he is thinking his own thoughts and is preoccupied with his own ideas. When he falls asleep, she can see from the rapid eye movements under his closed eyelids that he must be dreaming his own dreams. Each is close to and familiar with the other one, yet each has an ongoing private life, too. These characteristics together provide a paradigm of an intimate human relationship.

An intimate relationship is, at its best, an opportunity to give and receive love. At its worst, one or both parties exploit their closeness in order to hurt one another. However, a newborn baby cannot yet have learned how to be intentionally hurtful. He is concerned with survival. So a mother can enjoy a close relationship with a young person who is as gentle as she once must have been. For any woman who has suffered unhappy relationships in the past, this can be a most healing experience.

These intimate relationships, if we do our share well, must surely be among the finest and most far-reaching of all our achievements. As mothers, we are introducing our newborns to the complex world of social relationships. How do we do it?

The clearest account I have ever read is the first concept of La Leche League. The wording is perfect: "Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of understanding and satisfying the needs of a baby." By "understanding and satisfying the needs" of our babies -- or trying our best to -- we are showing our babies that they do not have to make it on their own. They can depend on us, their mothers, to welcome them, and try to work out what they need and how to give it to them as they adjust to life outside the womb.

The early period is crucial for a mother to learn about her baby. This is beautifully expressed in the third concept of La Leche League: "In the early years the baby has an intense need to be with his mother which is as basic as his need for food." The World Health Organization recommends that mothers breastfeed for at least six months. Shouldn't these same months be considered necessary, as a statutory minimal amount of time worldwide, for mothers to build up their intimate relationships with their babies?

Many mothers are contracted to return to work during this period. Some prefer to, and it seems important to make it possible for every mother to negotiate her own way. But many mothers return to work reluctantly. Surely it would make sense to move toward change so that it would be financially viable for a mother to choose to spend longer at home with her baby. How can it be right for mothers to have such a responsible social task as raising a child, yet not enough time to do it to the best of their ability?

Anyone who has breastfed for several months is likely to have experienced the intensity of the experience for herself. But this is unknown territory for other people. Perhaps it explains why employers expect mothers to return to work so soon. These employers simply do not recognize what mothers are achieving. The expressions "maternity break" or "maternity leave" sound a bit like taking a holiday from work. It conveys nothing of all the maternal work that a mother may be putting into that time.

The first step toward making it possible for mothers to spend longer at home with their babies is to clarify for ourselves, and then to explain to others, why this work is so important. It isn't obvious to everyone. A breastfeeding mother may receive comments or questions from friends or work colleagues that show quite clearly how little they understand about her situation. Perhaps her friend is not at all interested in babies, while her work colleague favors a different way of parenting. Most people intend to be helpful. They ask questions and offer suggestions. They are expressing their concern, and this could provide a good opportunity for a breastfeeding mother to explain how she is mothering her baby.

But the typical conversations that follow a question or suggestion often lead to a good deal of misunderstanding. The most frequently asked questions sound practical, but usually they are based on the assumption that all mothers share the same values. People have heard that mothers get tired, lonely, and bored with their babies, and that these are problems that need to be tackled. They expect this, even if the mother has not said she is unhappy or has asked for help.

Understandably, a breastfeeding mother will address the practical aspect of the question. But then she starts to feel uncomfortable and confused, without realizing why. When she answers these questions honestly, she will often appear to have "failed" as a mother. Often the goals embedded in the wording are not her goals, and so she has not tried to achieve them. She may find herself sounding defensive when she replies, and sometimes surprises herself by becoming almost apologetic for breastfeeding.

"Is your baby sleeping through the night?" is a frequent question, followed by: "Well, have you thought about sleep training him?" This sounds as though sleeping through the night is a desirable goal for all babies, and sleep training is one way to achieve it. If a mother replies: "No, he wakes up every night several times," she can appear to have failed to reach this desirable goal. But human milk is efficiently digested. Breastfed babies usually get hungry at night and need to wake up to feed. This means that when the mother breastfeeds at night, she has not failed. She has succeeded in satisfying the essential needs of her baby.

"Why don't you leave your baby to cry?" is another common question, sometimes followed by the words: "You should go out of earshot. He'll soon stop crying if he knows you're not coming." Some people today consider it beneficial for babies to soothe themselves, rather than to be comforted by their mothers. However, this value might sound alien to a breastfeeding mother. She longs to pick her baby up because she believes that a distressed baby needs to be comforted. "The comfort and security extended by your loving arms is never wasted," states THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING.

"Why don't you hire a baby-sitter?" is a frequent question from a breastfeeding mother's friends and colleagues who want to see more of her. "Can't we go out together just for one evening? It's healthy for you to have an occasional break from your baby." But breastfeeding mothers don't always want breaks. They are building relationships with their babies, and separation can interfere with that. They often welcome practical help and support rather than separation.

I have chosen these examples from several La Leche League series meetings in London, at which mothers were invited to contribute questions and comments that they found problematic. From what mothers say, it is clear that these questions and remarks are asked frequently.

In order to explain her mothering when she responds to these questions and suggestions, a mother would need to step right out of the value system in which they are framed, and return to her own breastfeeding values. "Thank you for your concern," a mother might reply, "but I see my situation in a different way." It is essential that we support one another in using breastfeeding-friendly language. People who don't know about breastfeeding need to learn what we are doing in our own terms.

These intimate relationships often extend beyond babyhood. La Leche League supports baby-led weaning and loving guidance, both of which are mentioned in the basic concepts. Through baby-led weaning and loving guidance, mothers can continue to keep in touch with the changing needs of their children.

Their babies then seem to feel safe to develop into children who know what they want and feel confident to ask for it. These small children might sound, at this stage, demanding and self-centered, especially when compared to children who are reared according to different values. But that seems part of a developmental process. Mothers often record how these same children reach a later stage at which they become good at listening and very reasonable to talk to.

However, just as in the earlier stages of breastfeeding, misunderstandings often arise, not so much because of practical differences, but because of differences in mothering values. One mother might see her actions as part of her work to "understand and satisfy" the needs of her child. But another mother would regard those same actions as indulging or spoiling the child. Understanding our children -- or spoiling them? How do we know which we are doing?

La Leche League has taken up this question when it concerns babies. It is discussed in THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING. The question as to whether one can spoil a baby is acknowledged as a good one. In reply, several reassuring answers are given, stating that a small baby can't be spoiled by fulfilling his needs.

The question of whether a mother is spoiling an older child is more complex. We need to consider what we mean by "spoiling." How should a mother respond, for example, to her toddler who seems determined to help himself to two biscuits at the same time? She tells him to put one back on the plate, and he immediately starts to cry. Should she judge him by his behavior? Is he being greedy, thoughtless, and selfish? Or does she try to understand him? He is not an adult, but a toddler.

When she thinks about it, she is sure he is too young to understand the "one-biscuit" idea. His plan appeared to have been to try both biscuits to discover if they tasted the same or different. She, and perhaps only she, can see that his behavior is not thoughtless but experimental. His thoughts are centered on the biscuits themselves, which are solid objects that he can recognize, rather than social niceties, which probably seem incomprehensible to him at this stage.

She may have to excuse him if anyone's feelings are offended so that his innocent action will not be misunderstood and misjudged. When he is ready, she will explain polite manners to him. Again, only she might know him well enough to recognize when he has reached the stage to learn. However, to label him "spoiled" now would be unfair. In the words of the La Leche League concept: "From infancy on, children need loving guidance which reflects acceptance of their capabilities and sensitivity to their feelings." This is an excellent guideline.

With my own children, I remember times when they sounded spoiled and inconsiderate. Yet I was certain they were not. I was sure they were asserting their need for my attention. I noticed that it was always at times when they were tired and realized that my primary attention had diverted to something else. I didn't know how to explain this to other people, so I would apologize for my children's behavior. I wish I could have appealed, at these socially painful moments, to a more widely understood concept of how these children develop, how they can be so mature at one moment, and then suddenly switch to clamoring for their mothers' immediate attention.

It can be difficult to explain the nature of this intimate kind of mothering to people who think differently. One occasion when I felt this keenly was at a meeting we held at the National Gallery for all London-based members of La Leche League. The National Gallery has a number of beautiful paintings of breastfeeding, for example by Boltraffio and Titian. We spent some time studying each painting. Several mothers sat down to breastfeed, and it was moving to turn from the paintings to living mothers, looking so similar.

However, not all the children were babies. Some were toddlers, and they wanted to be active. To prevent visitors from getting too close to the paintings, there were low metal rails, exactly the right height for a toddler to hold. The toddlers held the rails and used them as supports for standing while we were talking. They were not trying to climb over the rails to harm the paintings, which were high up, out of their reach. I could see that each mother was watching of her child and was very aware of what he was doing. But the Gallery attendants grew anxious. They were worried that the toddlers would cause harm to themselves. In their eyes, these toddlers were "out of control." I tried to explain that their mothers were very much in control, but found it difficult to convince them. They wanted the mothers to keep the toddlers away from the rails. It troubled me that they did not recognize how responsible these mothers really were.

As mothers, we have privileged access to our children. When we mother them, not by overt discipline, but by trying to understand them and deciding how far their wishes should be satisfied, our relationship becomes so intimate that it must be impossible for an outsider to see all that we see. We learn to recognize the logical reasons for our children's behavior. In response, they feel understood, and they trust us. We also mediate between their wishes and their ignorance of the consequences. A typical example of this arises over brushing teeth. We realize why it is important, but we have to teach our children before they are old enough to understand. Because our relationship is one of mutual trust, we usually prefer to do this in a tactful, rather than a forceful, way.

The mother of a 14-month-old reflected: "I suppose every time I understand B (her son), it's like little grains of sand. Nothing much in itself. It's only in time that it grows and one day it'll make a big sandcastle. Right now, it grows in tiny amounts. Each little grain adds to it."

There is a great deal still to discover about the way we mother and how it influences our children. Mothers and grandmothers probably continue to question and learn about their children all their lives. Surely all of us must have found some "little grains of sand." If we look after our little grains, hold them carefully, and make sure that they don't drop from our hands back onto the amorphous beach of unsorted grains, we have an opportunity to contribute to a large sandcastle.

We might be able to piece together a broad pattern of development that emerges from this intimate way of mothering -- not sharply defined, like a blueprint or a recipe, with instructions that all mothers are supposed to follow -- but at least with a recognizable "shape." This would help us to identify it for ourselves, and also to explain it to other people.

Sometimes, when I am sitting in a circle of mothers, the discussion can become focused and intense. Everyone is contributing to a particular question. On one occasion, a mother was troubled because she and her husband were always gentle with their small son, and he was gentle at home, but became aggressive in groups. Small children are sometimes aggressive to even smaller children, and some people think the explanation is because they are too afraid to pick on bigger children.

But this mother was very specific about her observations of her son: "It's never random aggression. He always bites the smallest child in the room. I believe he wants to be the smallest himself." This evoked comparable memories from other mothers. "My daughter always hits the prettiest child." "My toddler always breaks up games that the other toddlers are playing together." Suddenly we are on the brink of understanding.

Mothers often seem unaware of how much they have learned about their children. Children are constant surprises. Their mothers learn to set aside common assumptions about children in order to observe each individual child. Mothers of siblings and twins are astonished at the differences. Not all mothers choose to spend time on this. However, breastfeeding mothers can be especially thoughtful. Breastfeeding takes time and allows us to puzzle over the strangest questions as we sit and gaze down at our children while they breastfeed. The mother of a 14-month-old reflected:

"G (her daughter) and I are very in tune. We weren't a few weeks ago. She kept crying, and nothing I was doing seemed to help. It seems to go in cycles, because now we are in harmony again. But what I want to know is: is she able to communicate more clearly what she wants? Or have I got better at understanding her? I have to answer: both. It just takes time. I'll have to hang onto that knowledge so I can use it for next time."

This seems a significant observation. I wonder how many other mothers recognize these cycles of confusion followed by better understanding on both sides, as they try to keep pace with their developing children.

Motherly observations are also interactive. It can be fascinating to discover this. A mother may be observing her child -- only to find that he is observing her, too. The mother of a 13-month-old remarked:

"B (her son) keeps patting his cheeks, and I knew he must have learned something, but I didn't know what it was. Then, the other morning, I was stroking moisturizer onto my face, and I looked down at B, and he was patting his face. And I suddenly realized that that's what he'd learned."

This is a subtle detail. An outsider might well have regarded the toddler's action as meaningless. Would anyone except his mother have realized what her toddler was doing?

Mothers also describe the passion with which young toddlers learn. The mother of a 16-month-old related how:

"B (her son) can unload the dishwasher now, and he loves it. He takes out a plate and it's heavy, but he's very careful and he holds it, quivering with excitement, for me to take it. Then it's the same with the next plate. I can't load the dishwasher with dirty plates when he is around because he gets so pleased thinking there are more plates to take out. I put them in very quietly when he's asleep."

There's an interesting book called The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl. "The scientist" is an ordinary baby. Written by three developmental psychologists, the book describes experiments they did with babies to demonstrate that babies are intelligent people who study and think. "We used to recruit many of our baby subjects through La Leche League," they wrote, "a group that encourages breastfeeding."

The aim of the book is to demonstrate how observant and therefore how scientific babies really are. The authors sum up: "If the child is a budding psychologist, we the parents are the laboratory rats." This is obviously a humorous comment. However, I am not keen on the suggestion that babies are as detached as professional scientists who study the reactions of laboratory rats. The toddler who showed his mother that he knew how to unload their dishwasher certainly wasn't treating his mother like a laboratory rat!

Mothers understand their own children with unique sensitivity. Yet this intimate relationship, with its long history stretching back to the earliest days, seems difficult to put into words. I have looked through my large collection of books to find a good quotation by a mother, but I have not found what I want.

Maybe that is why art is so important. Painters have shown it vividly. There is a painting by Mary Cassatt of her brother sitting beside his son, who looks of school age. The son's arm is round his father's shoulders and his cheek touches his father's cheek. Another painting by Cassatt shows a mother and daughter in a boat. The daughter looks about five years old. Her body nestles against her mother, and she studies her feet, which are dangling over the edge of the boat, while listening to something her mother appears to be telling her. Cassatt shows the casual closeness of the males, and also the more intense relationship of the females.

Earlier this year, UNICEF published An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries. It was a large study that tried to measure how far children met six criteria, such as material well-being, health and safety, and educational well-being. But, in the summary, the authors come back to the oldest values of all. "Above all," they write, "we seek to know whether children feel loved, cherished, special and supported, within family and community, and whether family and community are being supported in this by public policy and resources."

If we have experienced intimate and loving relationships with our children, we have enjoyed just what the UNICEF study valued so highly. However, as families, we surely are not being sufficiently "supported in this by public policy and resources." Mothers who want longer time to be at home with their babies should certainly receive adequate support. However, if we want to receive more, we will need to communicate more.

One of the great achievements of La Leche League over these last 50 years has been to publish the words of breastfeeding mothers, and to give women like ourselves, for the first time in history, a clear and dignified international voice. Thanks to La Leche League, we probably know more about breastfeeding than our grandmothers did. La Leche League has also started to identify the meaning of mothering. This is what we need to continue doing. We may need to coin new expressions to explain it adequately. The best writing on mothering may not be in the past, but in the future.


An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries. UNICEF Innocenti Report Card 7. Florence: UNICEF, 2007.

Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A., and Kuhl, P. The Scientist in the Crib. New York: William Morrow, 1999.


World Health Organization. Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding. Geneva: WHO, 2003.